ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
He had vision and she had faith in his abilities to transform an old neglected structure into a dream come true. Mike and Coleen Ball bought the former Bruderthal School, built in 1931, and remodeled it into a charming home along North Main Street in Hillsboro.
“I had dozens of people ask, ‘Are you the crazy guy who’s trying to fix this house up?’ Mike said. “But they don’t think so now. Once they see the halfway finished product, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done this.'”
Coleen knew all along what Mike was capable of doing.
“I have a lot of trust in my husband,” she said. “You should have seen this when I first walked in.”
By the time the Balls rescued the two-room school house, rows of paneless windows were boarded up, the lathe-and-plaster walls had massive cracks in them and four gaping holes were visible in the walls and the roof.
“There were two places where a giant tree limb rubbed two large holes in the roof,” Mike said. “When it rained, the water would come in. But, it’s interesting. When I had this inspected, there wasn’t any dry rot. I think we caught it early enough.”
Their story begins when Mike worked as a visiting meat cutter for Vogt’s IGA in Hillsboro.
“We had owned a grocery store in Lindsborg that we closed,” Coleen said. “So Mike was traveling around cutting meat as a visiting meat cutter in different towns.”
While in Hillsboro, Mike saw the former school building sitting on the lot where the new post office was eventually built.
“I found out who owned it,” Mike said. “So I called him up, and he showed me this. He said it had to be moved because there were already plans under way to build the new post office on that spot.”
Mike was told the asking price was $1,800. He was so surprised, he asked to have the figure repeated to make sure he heard correctly.
“I went ahead and did a draft of it-drew out the plans and measured it,” Mike said. “I crawled underneath and inspected the floor joists and climbed up in the attic.”
The couple needed a home in Hillsboro because the local grocery store offered Mike a full-time position.
“When we moved here, there was nothing for sale that was very big,” Colleen said. “When he took the full-time job cutting meat at Vogt’s, he said, ‘Well, will you look at this building?’ And, I did.”
In spring 1996, the couple purchased the former school building and planned to place it on two vacant lots in the 200 block of North Main-about one block northeast of its location. The Balls paid a contractor from Hutchinson $8,000 to move it.
“Dave Kroeker, a builder who used to be here, he built the basement, framed the downstairs, sheet-rocked it and poured our front porch,” Mike said.
“The basement’s the cheapest construction you can do per square feet,” he added. The cost was $14,500, and it has double-egress windows in two of the three basement bedrooms.
The moving date was delayed three weeks due to rain, but was finally scheduled in mid-October.
“It was amazing,” Mike said about a near catastrophe on moving day. “It had rained and rained, and he almost lost it over here by the railroad tracks. That probably would have ruined it.”
Mike now works as an environmental-technology instructor for Salina Area Technical School, and Coleen is employed in the business office at Tabor College. They have one son, Shane, who completed his first year at Pittsburg State University this spring.
After purchasing the school and renovating it, the couple learned of its history.
The Bruderthal School was originally located near French Creek Cove before the Marion Reservoir was established.
“A plaque underneath the building says it was built in 1931 by Bill Penner,” Mike said. “We were told there was a church about a mile away, too.”
The settlers in the Bruderthal area were from about five different areas of Europe.
The school was built with a front entry, two cloak rooms on either side of the entry and two large side-by-side classrooms along the back. A long bead-board sliding door, extending from the ceiling, could be pulled down between the class rooms and retracted back into attic space when not needed.
An entrance on the front of the building led to a full basement and furnace area. Students and teachers relied on several large windows, now located on the east side, for ventilation and light.
When the reservoir project displaced structures in that area, the building was moved by Emil Bartel in 1958 to its new location near the railroad tracks on Main Street.
Buller Manufacturing moved the school to that Main Street location and operated a manufacturing facility in the building, according to Hillsboro resident Ray Funk.
“They were the first ones in there,” Funk said. “They manufactured feeders, saw frames and things like that. And later, it was a shoe-repair store.”
The Balls finally moved into their former school on New Year’s Eve and began working in earnest in 1997 on renovations needed to transform it into a home.
“It’s very structurally sound,” Mike said. “It’s framed with two-by-sixes. The guy who moved it, when he crawled underneath, he said there are steel I-beams in the floor joists. The steel I-beams run east/west and two-by-10s run north/south. That’s because it’s a 26-foot expanse.”
Contractors were hired to put on a new roof, install heating and air and also complete the plumbing for a kitchen, an upstairs bathroom and a downstairs bathroom, laundry and mechanical-room area.
“That’s it,” Mike said. “We’ve done everything else-the finish work-and I did the wiring.”
With the help of family members, Coleen patiently scraped the exterior 21/4-inch siding before she and Mike painted it.
“We saved all the original siding except for $100 worth of boards,” Mike said.
One of the cloak rooms is now an upstairs full bathroom connected to the entry. The north classroom serves as a kitchen that opens into the dining room. The pull-down door still functions and leads into the second classroom, now transformed into a large living room-26 feet long by 14 feet wide-with a French door opening into the back yard.
Beside the living room, Mike created a small room for a future office and sleeping loft for family and guests.
A stairway off the entry leads to a master bedroom, guest bedroom, Shane’s bedroom and the full bath with laundry facilities.
“We have big bedrooms and monster closets,” Mike said. “In our old post-Victorian house we had in Lindsborg, we didn’t have large closets. And Coleen said, “If we’re going to do this, I want large closets.'”
A two-car garage, costing about $10,000, was added on the east edge of the double lot. “Not including the garage, we’ve put less than $80,000 in it,” Mike said. “So where are you going to find a 3,000-square-foot house for that?”
Although money was a factor, the couple said they were attracted to the large, open rooms, the old wood moldings and the 12-foot ceilings.
There is no insulation in the exterior walls, but the house is energy efficient.
“It’s been really surprising to us,” Coleen said. The only insulation is on the floor of the attic.
“It’s built well,” Mike said. “And we have high-efficiency heating and air.”
Almost eight years later, their renovation is nearly completed.
They plan to refinish the original yellow-pine flooring, install molding in certain areas, complete the office/loft area, glass in a shelving display in the entry and add two support pillars to the front porch.
A former art teacher, Mike is in the process of completing a mural of a 1930s Kansas landscape on the walls of the entry.
The exterior is painted and landscaping is in place, with islands of wildflowers blooming on the lawn.
“We like natural,” Mike said. “Everybody thinks that’s stone around the flower beds, but it’s just concrete turned upside down. I call it poor-boy stone,” he said.
Asked if they would work on their extreme home all over again, if given the chance to back out, the couple said it was worth it.
“It’s a very comfortable house, and it’s wide open,” Coleen said. “It’s just us. I really love this house.”